Old Chum

Skewering suburbia -- gee, never seen that before

So how about those suburbs, eh? Boy, they sure do suck. All full of bored teens, inattentive parents, alcoholic housewives, middle-aged guys who suddenly realize they've been wasting their lives, and lots of mind-numbing psychoactive drugs. Also, people who live there are conformist! Why, someone really oughta make a movie about such things. . . . Oh, wait, lots of people already have.

And here's another one, for no apparent reason titled The Chumscrubber. Within the movie, "The Chumscrubber" is a cartoon and video game about a post-apocalypse teen with a severed head, but there is no scrubbing of chum involved, as there was in, for instance, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The teen in question bears a striking resemblance to Troy (Josh Janowicz), a high schooler who, according to the opening narration, "supplied feel-good pills to all the kids at Hillside, and in this way happiness was spread all around. Life could not possibly be any more wonderful." Much like the notion of affluent suburbs concealing unhappy people, that statement is what you might call "ironic." Mere minutes of screen time later, Troy is found dead, hanging from a noose in his bedroom. His best friend Dean (Jamie Bell) discovers the body, but doesn't bother telling anyone, because he's all disaffected and stuff.

Dean's father (William Fichtner, bearing a scary resemblance to regular Fox News punching bag Alan Colmes) is a psychiatrist who has published numerous self-help books based on his son's neuroses, and Dean's mother is Allison Janney, who probably wonders why she seems to be in American Beauty all over again. Their solution to any of Dean's problems is pills: antidepressants from Dad, vitamins from Mom (who also sells them for a living).

Wait, don't tell us -- Disaffected Youth, right?
Wait, don't tell us -- Disaffected Youth, right?

Details

Rated R.

Pills also get the plot moving, namely the feel-good pills Troy was dealing. A bully named Billy (Justin Chatwin, a.k.a. Tom Cruise's son who really should have died in War of the Worlds, but didn't) feels that the pills are rightfully his -- whether they are or not is never discussed. Along with his sidekick Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), and pretty female friend Crystal (Camilla Belle), he tries to persuade Dean to find and obtain the pills for them. Dean isn't inclined to do so, as he doesn't really like anybody, and especially not Billy, who mocked Troy's death with a hanged effigy.

So Billy decides to kidnap Charlie (Rory Culkin), Dean's brother, as collateral, but ends up kidnapping the wrong Charlie (Thomas Curtis), who happens to be the stepson-to-be of mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes) and the biological son of the town's top cop (John Heard). Somehow, the threat of harm coming to this kid is still just enough to motivate Dean, even though the wrong Charlie seems quite happy to hang with the bad kids. The movie's central joke is that this blackmail plot is so absurd -- and the adults so out of it -- that those involved repeatedly admit their crime and no one believes them. In a running gag, the parents' suspicions are constantly assuaged by three simple words: "It's for school."

It's easy to mock director Arie Posin and screenwriter Zac Stanford for their all-too-easy targets, and to say that there's little here that Heathers, Edward Scissorhands or Donnie Darko didn't already lampoon more and better. But to give them credit, they do create a well-realized world, even if they can't quite persuade you to linger there as a voyeur. Either a bit more humor or a bit more heart could exponentially improve things; the climax, which brings all the loose ends together with suspense, violence and absurdity, is so effective that you may briefly forget the buildup wasn't as good as it could have been. One of the most potentially interesting story strands is the character of Crystal, who initially seems like a love interest for Dean, then is exposed as a friend of Billy's (possibly a girlfriend, but that's never clarified), then teased as possibly falling for Dean anyway . . . but instead turns out to be just as much of a shallow bitch as she always seemed. Alas, she gets a final bit of redemption that totally undercuts this unique direction.

Bell, the British actor who so expertly nailed the Appalachian accent in Undertow, is similarly good with generic American -- the movie was halfway through before I realized that it was indeed the star of Billy Elliot in the lead. The same cannot be said for Jason Isaacs, whose casting here as Lee's dad is baffling; the role doesn't require much skill, and Isaacs has a tougher time with his accent here than he did fighting Mel Gibson in The Patriot.

Carrie-Anne Moss and Glenn Close are also in the movie, both playing dysfunctional moms. Moss, as Crystal's lascivious, drunken parent, takes her shirt off in one scene, but you don't get to see much -- the film's R rating is mainly for drugs, not hooters. Close is the mother of the dead kid, and does her best Stepford Wives reprise, endlessly parroting the line, "In no way whatsoever do I blame you for Troy's death." Seems like we're supposed to laugh every time she says it, but it's only funny when she actually asks a little kid to write it down word for word.

 
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